One of the most common questions I get when I tell people where I live is, “What made you want to move to Guanajuato?” Usually this question is from people who have never set foot in the city, since once they have visited it’s easy to understand. A big reason I loved it immediately is that there are more pedestrian streets than ones with cars on them. That’s partly possible because the cars are going through the Guanajuato tunnels.
The capital city of Guanajuato state is a UNESCO World Heritage site dating back to the 1500s, a winding narrow river valley city that found fortune in Spanish colonial times through the many silver mines in the area. At one point, a single mine here—Valenciana–was supposedly cranking out two-thirds of the silver landing in ports around the world. In all fairness though, many other cities in the Americas can claim similar stats for various points in history, from Mexico down to Bolivia. (Most of the gold, however, came from what is now Peru.)
In current times, there’s a whole network of roads through the mountains surrounding the city and sometimes there are tunnels going right under homes and businesses, coming out on the other side of a hill. How did all this happen?
Guanajuato City Tunnels History
While many of the tunnels look as if they’ve been around forever, the whole network of underground roads really picked up speed in the 1960s, when the age of the automobile made its way into central Mexico.
The earliest tunnels in Guanajuato were a flood control measure initiated in the 1800s after one particularly bad one caused incredible damage. There used to be a river flowing right through the city center, which was fine until days of rain in a row would hit the high desert area. Then the water would rise faster than it could flow out. There’s a flood line marker on some of the historic buildings from a century ago that’s taller than me.
Something had to be done, so two dams, a small artificial lake, and a retaining pond went up above the city, now the Presa de la Olla area. Workers installed big pipes to route the water through the city on the old river route, put those pipes below the city in the historic center, then built a tunnel that could carry horse carts and eventually cars.
Keep in mind that many of the city’s men were miners and it’s easy to see why tunneling came naturally here. If unemployment crept up, it was easy to justify a public works project to build a new tunnel. The crumbly, mineral-filled rock here is not particularly hard, so boring through it didn’t require tons of dynamite that would rock the houses above that are perched on the hillsides.
Once middle-class people started purchasing cars and more tourists arrived, Guanajuato faced two problems that centuries-old cities have faced all over the world, especially in Europe: narrow streets and no place to park. In an impressive bit of forward-looking wisdom from city planners, leaders decided that sending cars through the mountains was easier than trying to build roads over those mountains or knocking down historic buildings. And hey, why not use those tunnels for parking as well?
The first tunnels date back to the 1800s, but the latest one is less than 15 years old. I use it a lot when I flag down a taxi because it connects my neighborhood to a nice ‘00s road leading to the bus station and the airport toll road.
The tunnels are intricate and many are interconnected, so it’s like a whole other street map under the mountains. It’s possible to get lost and come out someplace other than you expected if you’re driving, but there are frequent signs telling you where to go and you can usually get back on track eventually if you take a wrong turn. You have to use your eyes and common sense though. The GPS is not going to help you underground. You also have to be super careful about which ones to use if you’re coming into this city with any kind of RV.
Can you walk through Guanajuato’s tunnels?
Most visitors to my home city and a whole lot of its residents are never driving their own car. You can walk almost everywhere, the local bus system is good, and taxis are only a few bucks to go across town. The only time I ever get behind the wheel is to take a road trip to somewhere else in Mexico. So back to one of the reasons I moved here: the city is designed to favor pedestrians, not cars, especially in the historic center.
Nearly every day I spot confused tourists trying to navigate with Google Maps or some other program on their phone and having a tough time trying to figure out where they’re going. That’s because the mapping programs treat the tunnels like regular streets. So they will show you a “street” that is really under your feet or heading into a hillside, a tunnel that might be a mile long in the dark. You probably don’t want to take an exhaust-filled stroll through one of those.
There are a few shorter tunnels that I use now and then though because they can save a trip hiking over a mountain or will cut the distance from Point A to B. I only do this rarely, however, because there’s going to be some pollution going into the lungs unless there’s no traffic and there’s an element of faith that a car is not going to swerve off and hit you. It’s rare that I’m the only one in a tunnel when I walk though. The locals take these shortcuts too. It’s just not a very pleasant stroll.
One that is useful if you’re renting an apartment for a while is the tunnel that goes from Embajadoras Park to the giant La Comer supermarket in a small shopping mall on the other side of a mountain. I can get some exercise and walk up and down steep hillsides to get there in about a half-hour, or I can walk through a tunnel and get there in 10 minutes. Because of an oddity in the bus system routes, it takes even longer than walking to get there by bus, but less than five minutes to return on a bus. So sometimes I’ll take the tunnel or go over the mountain to get there, but will take the bus back through that tunnel for about 35 cents with groceries in hand.
The one that goes underneath the historic center can sometimes be useful on a packed holiday weekend just for crowd avoidance or to get a different perspective. That one’s open part of the way (as you see in that first vertical photo in this post), so the air is better. Otherwise, most of them are better explored from the seat of a car than on foot.
Which tunnels are easy to visit?
Quite a few Guanajuato tunnels have entrances or exits in the historic center. There’s one where the funicular goes up to the overlook point, one at each end of Sangre de Cristo, and one that disappears into a mountain near the Diego Rivera Museum. You could walk into one for a bit and come back out the same way just to see it.
Otherwise, the tunnel going underneath the center is easy to find and explore. There are stairways going down to it all along the main pedestrian thoroughfare and the main street with cars on it. At times it’s simply a street below a street, criss-crossing the main one in several spots. Then for a while it’s parallel but underneath, mostly going in the opposite direction. This is actually the most elaborate tunnel too, with brick arches and support columns in some spots, cobblestones or flagstones for the roadway.
It’s fun to take a walk along part of it just to see how the Spanish colonial architecture worked when the tunnel was a riverbed before. (You’ll get a full explanation if you take one of my company’s city walking tours.) Some of the spots have public bathrooms, food vendors, bus stops, and even parking garages.
Guanajuato events in the tunnels
If you’re lucky with your timing, there might be an event going on in one of the tunnels while you’re in the city and you’ll get to see one in a whole different light. There were more of these before the pandemic, naturally, but they’re starting to come back now and then. You’ll have the most chance of this happening if you arrive when the Cervantino Festival bleeds into the Day of the Dead. The former will have DJ parties or even concerts in tunnels sometimes, the latter has a whole set-up for the holidays with food vendors, craft beer sellers, music performances, art exhibits, and even a guest appearance from some Guanajuato mummies.
The shot above is from 2019 when I went, but this Dia de los Muertos event returned in 2021 the weekend after the official holiday. I was a bit leery about the crowds this time, but hope to hit it again next year. It’s great to wander through the blocked-off tunnel right under the center, very atmospheric.
The rest of the year, I often don’t find out about these events in the Guanajuato tunnels until the weekend they’re happening. Just watch for announcements posted on signs and ask around.